Here are few more sidebars, etc., that didn’t make it into The poor pilgrim’s almanack, or, The handbook of pilgrimage and relic theft. (#shamelesscommerce) The illustrations here and in the other Research Mathoms post were not necessarily meant to be in it though — we used only black & white or greyscale images that were in the public domain or under CC license.
Many saints were found to be “incorruptible” when exhumed. In a few cases this meant that the corpse remained largely untouched by decay for a very long time — perhaps perpetually. The bodies are often displayed under glass. But most incorruptible bodies eventually decay. The designation that a saint’s body was “incorruptible” required only that the corpse look fresh when first exhumed. Decay may set in almost immediately. The relics would be encased in reliquaries, or possibly chased in gold, or covered with wax to represent the appearance of the body when it was exhumed.
Note that “incorrupt” is a relative term. Here’s an incorrupt saint, St. Zita. Not too bad for a 750 year old corpse.
In addition to the relics of saints and Biblical figures, some collections at shrines included unusual items such as Griffin’s claws, phoenix feathers, unicorn horns, and other parts of monsters — collected by pilgrims in foreign lands, sent as rare and valuable tributes, or even as trophies from the ordeals of saints. One church boasted that it had the tip of Lucifer’s tail, lost in a fight with a Syrian hermit. Some such objects were reputed to have their own occult power to heal, but most were simply exhibited along with the fine clothes, jewelry, and other valuables offered in honor of the saint.
Alicorns — the supposed horns of unicorns, most often in the form of narwhal horns or vessels carved from rhinoceros horns — were a highly valued item both because of their intrinsic worth (princes would pay up to 20 times their weight in gold for them, and a large narwhal horn could weight over 12 pounds) and for their supposed magical properties. St. Denis cathedral near Paris had a 7 foot long, 13 pound alicorn among its treasures; St. Mark’s in Venice had two alicorns, each about a meter long and supposedly looted from Constantinople in 1204, plus another of a later date that was two meters long; other impressive specimens were in cathedrals and churches at Milan, Raskeld, St. Paul’s in London, and Westminster Abbey. Alicorns were thought to cure or prevent poisoning and pestilential disease. Unscrupulous guardians might sell filings from the horns for quick cash, and there are records of alicorns being gilded or chased in silver to prevent this. Griffin claws — the horns of ibex or buffalo — were thought to neutralize poison too.
There were also an array highly unusual items with supposed supernatural origins in various church collections. A ray from the star of Bethlehem, objects given to saints by angels ranging from clothing to clocks, body parts from angels, the foreskin of Jesus (as well as many other unlikely mementos of his infancy and childhood), feathers (!) from the Holy Spirit, and even fire from the Burning Bush were all inventoried in various collections.
Corpse Roads and Lych Gates
The local parish church held funeral rites and everyone who could afford the fees would prefer to be buried in the parish graveyard. However as small villages sprang up further and further away from the central parish church, it became necessary to establish roads leading from the villages to the church. These roads would be used solely for transporting the dead for burial, as the presence of a corpse was unlucky at best and potentially dangerous at worst. Moreover the ghosts of the dead were thought to wander the corpse road for as long as the soul was in purgatory — potentially many years. For these reasons the corpse road was always laid out in unwanted and otherwise untraveled land. The corpse road was also kept as straight as possible, even if it meant cutting through difficult terrain or crossing streams, because it was thought the ghosts traveled only in straight lines, and no-one wanted the ghosts to wander off the road. Corpse roads always led to a Lych Gate, the gate to the burial yard (“lych” meaning body or corpse).